Becoming Whole: Training for Health

We best understand health when we find ourselves deprived of it. Examining health, we find that the etymology of “health” points to a more expansive concept, which better sits with how we commonly understand health. When we then ask why we must train for health, we realize that the typical modern path leads to the opposite of health. We must struggle to achieve health and wholeness. And all will be better off for doing so.

Stay Tuned! The Barbell Health Podcast Series and a New Page for Strength and Health Content

Next week at Barbell Logic we are focusing on the power that barbell training for health. Follow the Barbell Logic Podcast for a seven-part series from Dr. Jonathan Sullivan and Coach Noah Hayden on Barbell Health. And stay tuned into the Barbell Logic website for a new page for all things health-related.

Becoming Whole: Training for Health

By: Dan Shell, BLOC Staff Coach

What is Health?

The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) defines health foremost as “Soundness of body; that condition in which its functions are duly and efficiently charged.” This seems correct but is detached somehow from how we experience health.

We best understand—and appreciate—health when we lose it. Similar to water, which we most value when we suffer deep thirst, we most value health when we suffer an injury or confront chronic pain, acquire a short sickness or a serious illness, deal with debilitating anxiety or depression, or suffer severe physical limitations, such as weakness, that prevent us from accomplishing everyday tasks easily. This is why masters athletes seem to most appreciate training: they confront not only mortality, but too many also confront their bodies’ limitations as they age. So, while defining health may seem straightforward, the dictionary definition does not quite line up with the human experience.

To examine health in a positive sense, a recent Barbell Logic ebook talked about health in this way:

“The qualities of health include not just the absence of disease, but also those qualities that allow you to live well, be productive and independent, and to fare better in case of illness or injury…. Health is your armor against an unpredictable future and the qualities that allow you to participate in your own life as fully as possible.”

If we examine health through this lens—that which makes you complete—the etymology of the English words “health” and “heal” suggest a more holistic notion of health than the cut and dried dictionary definition.

Health and History

First, health traces its root to Germanic languages—not Greek or Latin. The English words that pop up in the OED etymology include “whole” and “hale.” Pardon me, but I’m going to nerd out for a couple of paragraphs.

Heal can trace its root back to the Middle English hēle, as “heal” exists in an obsolete noun version as well. Hēle contains the normal idea of health and bodily functions but also “wholesome things,” “recovery from diabolical possession,” and “forgiveness of sin.” It further contains definitions related to “a state of happiness or prosperity,” “fortune, good luck, profit, advantage,” and “salvation.”

Hēle finds its roots in the Old English hǣlu and hǣl (note, to access this hyperlink, you’ll have to sign up for a free subscription to the University of Toronto’s The Dictionary of Old English; go on, the article will still be here while you do that), which similarly contains definitions suggestions that these words were used in greetings and included the idea of “mental or spiritual health or well-being.”

And thus, we find words on this expanded family word tree such as “wholesome,” “whole,” “holy,” “holistic,” and “hail” (as in “hail to the king” or “hail Mary”).

As we all know, health is more than blood pressure and cholesterol levels, our waist circumference and weight, or even, yes, how much we squat. The older and more expansive definitions of health better fit our conception of health and its antonyms. We lack health if we find ourselves destitute or afflicted by trauma—physical or psychological—if we lack human touch and connection, or are struggling with anxiety or depression.

The very roots, then, of this word contain terms we now name with additional words: mental health, financial health, spiritual health.

Furthermore, examining “health” with its connection to “whole” proves illuminating. If I ask, “Are you healthy?” you might think, “Yeah, I’m pretty strong, not sick, not in pain, I guess I’m healthy.” If I ask, “Are you whole?” you might first tilt your head and squint your eyes. Then, if you take the question seriously, you might think, “No, I’m struggling with how I feel about my body,” or “No, I feel lonely constantly,” or “No, I’m drinking until I’m drunk every night.”

Because, through this new lens, most if not all of us would find areas of our life where we not only could improve marginally but where we flounder, let us quickly look more closely at why we may struggle with health and why, in our struggle for health, we must struggle for health.

Strength and Health and Modern-Day Life

Why must we train for health? We could similarly ask why we need diets, financial planning, counseling, and mindfulness practices. If we glide through life—if we follow the typical path of most people in the modern world today—we realize that we find ourselves unhealthy—not whole. We, too often, suffer loneliness, anxiety, obesity, chronic disease, chronic pain, depression. We too often drown these with drugs, pornography, social media, screen time, and overeating highly-processed foods.

Life is hard, no matter the time or place. Modern life, however, afflicts humans with a particular cluster of maladies—what Dr. Jonathan Sullivan calls the Sick Aging Phenotype. How, then, do we strain against the Sick Aging Phenotype? Supposed solutions abound, but too little healing seems to occur.

The fitness industry too often promotes false promises, extremes of dieting and fitness, confusing and conflicting information, false idols, and unrealistic and unsatisfying goals. We understand that six-pack abs, Instagram-ready physiques, and rippling muscles may motivate some.

Here at Barbell Logic, we denigrate no goals, be we value life and vigor and health, not illusory goals, whose pursuit often plagues people who either never attain them or realize they don’t bring the bliss and happiness they thought. Ultimately, we have to enjoy the pursuit and the process of improving ourselves, whether it be strengthening our bodies, our relationships, or our minds. We will never feel like we’ve made it: we’ll never feel like we finished (and, if we do, it will be after a life pursuing the good, the true, the beautiful). We understand that we train for life. The investment we put in under the bar pays as we complete everyday tasks; it pays off if we become bed-ridden; it pays off when we incur physical trauma or if we find ourselves diagnosed with cancer.

The medical industry, in comparison, too often treats symptoms with drugs and discourages strenuous exercise—especially barbell exercise—and often addresses symptoms, not root causes of illnesses.

Even if a doctor regularly prescribed methods similar to Dr. Jonathan Sullivan’s, how achievable would that be, if the patient has no knowledge barbell training and no assistance from a professional? If your doctor told you the following, and you had no experience strength training, how do you think you would react? “I want you to lift three times a week. Your program shall consist of the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press. Begin with three sets of five for all the lifts except for the deadlift, which I would recommend starting at one set of five. Squat first, rotate between the press and bench press every other session, and finish with the deadlift. For nutrition, try to stick to whole foods as much as possible and aim to get around 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Prioritize your sleep, and work to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night. I’ll see you in a year.” We would applaud the doctor, but we cannot forget about the patient. That’s a lot to take in and a routine easier prescribed than followed without more knowledge, experience, accountability, and assistance.

Where will the doctor be between now and the next check-up, when there is have a question? Will your doctor help with accountability and keeping the patient on track?

This, of course, is why strength coaches and Barbell Logic exist: to spread the benefits of strength to more people.

At Barbell Logic, we believe in Strength for All. All people benefit from strength, and the process of training for strength will leave you with increased confidence and vitality. You may also find that the successful implementation of carving out and sticking to the habit of training multiple times a week enables you to tackle other things in your life. you certainly will find that eating a junk food meal before training won’t be something you want to do. You may find that by organizing your life (at least in part) to support training makes it easier to eat healthier, sleep more, and improve other behaviors. You will likely find that you are closer to whole than you were before.

We don’t pretend that strength solves everything. Your life, however, would be better if you were stronger and got stronger by training with barbells.

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